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U.S. Vice-President Mike Pence speaks during the vice-presidential debate at Kingsbury Hall, on the campus of the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City, on Oct. 7, 2020.The Associated Press

As Vice-President to Donald Trump, Mike Pence has been a blank-faced sanctimonious bore. He has the demeanour of a mortician. He changes his facial expression every blue moon.

Added to those burdens in the debate against Kamala Harris was the frightfully difficult one of defending the record of the Trump administration. Added to that was the immediate challenge of stopping the bleeding of a Republican campaign that looks moribund.

Mr. Pence didn’t stop the hemorrhaging but may have paused it for a while. He gave a better defence of the Trump record than anyone else in the administration has been able to do. While condescendingly pious, while shamelessly dodging the questions put to him, while filling the hall with falsehoods, he was poised, articulate and precise. He showed that on the Republican ticket there is at least a degree of rationality.

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Ms. Harris had enough ammunition to embarrass and flatten him but while getting in the occasional good hit, she never moved in for the kill.

She opened the debate powerfully by calling the White House’s response to the coronavirus disease “the greatest failure of any presidential administration in the history of our country.”

Mr. Pence parried with the absurd claim that “from the very first day President Donald Trump has put the health of America first.” Throughout the debate, he never flinched. In some instances, she did.

Many observers maintained that Ms. Harris had to avoid coming across as being too forceful and aggressive because gender dynamics makes it dangerous territory for women to do so. Heaven forbid they show much emotion.

It’s an old and ailing stereotype. There’s no reason why men should be able to be more aggressive. There’s no reason given the Trump record that she could not have been withering on the attack. But instead Ms. Harris appeared hindered by the notion. She smiled in response to his fusillades. She smiled all night long.

That said, she held her own enough throughout the debate to avoid doing damage to the ticket. Given the impressive lead the Democrats had going into this encounter, anything close to a draw in the debate was a worthy result.

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For the Republicans, the damage was done in the presidential debate last week with the wretched, wrathful showing of Mr. Trump. Polling numbers had moved very little in the months previous to it. After it, the Trump support numbers dropped.

In normal times, this election would be declared for all intents and purposes as over. The only reason it’s not is because handicappers are overly spooked by what happened last time when Mr. Trump overcame a smaller deficit to win. They think lightning will strike twice.

The debate this time was thankfully civil and featured comic relief as one of the blows Mr. Pence dealt with was a fly that landed on his head for a couple of minutes, prompting some splendid Twitter barbs like that from Monica Lewinsky. “One fly on the cuckoo’s nest.”

But the moderator, Susan Page of USA Today, was unable to keep Mr. Pence from running roughshod over time limits and scoring points while doing so.

In one instance he had the gall to tell Ms. Harris that she was entitled to her own opinion but not her own facts. This from an administration headed by a President who has put out literally thousands of lies or misleading statements. She let that pass.

On climate change Mr. Pence accomplished the astonishing feat of maintaining a straight face while saying that “President Trump has made it clear that we’re going to continue to listen to the science.”

On the coronavirus he did the same in suggesting that Ms. Harris, not Mr. Trump, was the one playing “politics with people’s lives.”

He battered the Democrat on the question of whether a Biden administration would pack the Supreme Court with new justices to overcome the current conservative advantage. She refused to answer the question, looking lost while he kept pressing her on it.

Candidates habitually dodge the questions asked but few have ever done so to the egregious extent of Mr. Pence, a glaring example being his refusal to say whether Mr. Trump would accept the election result. Ms. Harris shouldn’t have let him get away with that either.

But in the long run it won’t matter. It will take far more than a passable showing from Mr. Trump’s sycophantic second in command to change the course of this campaign.

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